Being Grant: Now and Then—Postscript

(photo courtesy Grant Cottage State Historical Site)

ECW is pleased to welcome back our friend, Dr. Curt Fields. Curt is nationally known for his acclaimed portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant. This week, he reflects on some of the highlights of his career thus far. (postscript to a series)

Postscript: The Grant (Drexel) Cottage, Mt. McGregor, Wilton, NY

Portraying General and President Grant has taken me to quite a few places, some of them interesting, some unique, some mystifying and some a bit eerie. Going to the Grant Cottage, now a National Historic Landmark, was thrilling with a bit of eerie on the side.

The trip through the old prison gates to the Cottage at the top of the mountain was a corkscrewing, excitement-building short ride ending at the epicenter of all things Grant: the Cottage. It is a must-see, must-go for anyone interested in the Civil War or American History in general and Grant in particular.

I didn’t know what to expect but had an idea from all of the photos I’ve seen over the years. The reality over-layed on that expectation was akin to an image that was a bit out of focus. Yes, the Cottage, with its distinctive yellowish color and all of the contrasting brown latticework, was as expected but . . . the feel of the place was somber. That is not to say unpleasant, just . . . somber. Perhaps the Victorian word “melancholy” is the best descriptor of the feeling that I got when walking up to the house and on the porch. All of the feelings of what had taken place in that house: the agony and death of Grant, the grief of Julia losing her Lyss after 36 years of marriage, the collective sadness of an extended family gathered to watch the last hours of the great man that had been so critical to America—I could sense it all . . . it all came together . . . as I stepped on the wooden porch and floors in the house.

I mentioned the prison gates earlier and must explain that. The Cottage has been there since 1885, but things around it have changed constantly. There was a resort hotel that failed, a tuberculosis facility for years that morphed into a veteran’s facility for returning WWII vets needing some care, with the last incarnation being a New York prison that was first a minimum-security and then a medium-security facility. Budgets and other problems caused its demise. The Cottage was inside the prison grounds, and visitors had to check in through those gates. Now the prison is empty, the gates are open, (during regular visitor/tour hours), and the Cottage soldiers on as the institution it has always been.

I was asked to do a private presentation for the volunteer staff that was working and could come back after-hours to see the program. The Cottage was closed, and only the guides and other staff were there. “Thrilled” is not strong enough to encompass how it felt to have the opportunity not only to do a program as President Grant on the porch of the Cottage, but to do it for the people who work as tour guides and do all of the other multitudinous little things to keep it looking good and running well. It was a double blessing for a man who portrays Grant to present to people who really KNOW Grant and his last days at the Cottage.

I was not prepared for the emotional charge that came over me as I began talking as President Grant, knowing he is going to die soon and welcoming the relief that death would bring—thinking out loud for his friends about what he felt in those last days. It was profound to describe the situation, with its solitude and its activity: that while he could no longer speak, his mind and thoughts were active as ever as people swirled about him all day, every day. I will never forget the experience on the porch. “Overwhelmed” would be the best way to put how I felt as I tried to speak the thoughts he indicated in his Memoirs.

The presence of Grant is everywhere in that Cottage and, I think, has a pervasive effect on the attitude of people going through it or making presentations.

Visiting the Grant Cottage on Mt. McGregor in Wilton, NY, should be on the list of anyone who has an interest in our collective story. It should be on the list of everyone wanting to truly feel that collective story.

(photo courtesy Grant Cottage State Historical Site)

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